Celebrating the Contribution of Bhai Avtar Singh Bhai Gurcharan Singh Ragi

In a fast changing atmosphere in which cultural and traditional values are receding as if to make space to apparently more impellent material needs, it is rare to have occasions to re-evaluate our heritage and express gratitude for those who gave invaluable contributions during a lifetime of dedication to music and spiritual values.

In was one of these rare moments when, on October 16, at the India Habitat Centre, Anād Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of cultural and artistic heritage, held a function to honour Bhai Avtar Singh Bhai Gurcharan Singh Ragi. The name “Jashan”, chosen for the programme, indicated the spirit of celebration that Anād Foundation intended to give to this occasion. It was indeed a celebration for the 13 generations old tradition of Gurbani Kirtan, brought forward for the last four hundred years, and for their representatives.

Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh Ragi were present on the occasion, though their unstable health conditions had been a concern for family members and organizers, to receive the first Anād Sanman, the award offered by the Anād Foundation to eminent musicians or artists for their contribution to traditional art forms.

The programme was attended by an amazingly large audience: close family relatives and friends, lovers of Kirtan and music in general, artists from different artistic fields, eminent personalities including Dr. J.S. Neki, Baba Sarabjot Singh Bedi, Bishan Singh Bedi, Member of Parliament Dr. M S Gill, Dr. S A Ali, the Ambassador of Italy Mr. Antonio Armellini, the Italian First Counsellor Mr. Paolo Trichilo, the Italian artist Tarshito, the Sarna family and Mrs. Anita Singh, just to name a few, came together to celebrate sixty years of devoted singing and adherence to a precious spiritual heritage of Bhai Avtar Singh Gurcharan Singh Ragi, and their accompanist on Tabla, Bhai Swaran Singh.

The melodious raga misra bhairavi on the Algoza by Shri Mehrdin invited the audience to join in the celebration. The short but enchanting performance of Shri Mehrdin was followed by an invigorating Pakhawaj solo performance by Shri Ravi Shankar Upadhyaya, who represents his family tradition that hails from Gaya, is one of the finest exponents of this art form.

After the welcoming by the Algoza and the Pakhawaj resonance that accompanied the entrance of Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh in the auditorium, Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India K.T.S. Tulsi, a founder Trustee of Anād Foundation, addressed the audience. He spoke about the Foundation, its objectives and the upcoming Anad Conservatory: An Institute of Arts, Aesthetics, Cultural Traditions and Developmental Studies. He also informed the audience about the successful setting up of a world-class audio restoration studio in New Delhi by the Anad Conservatory.

Following the introductions, Janāb Sakar Khan and Shri Gaivar Khan took the stage. They played compositions in raga asa, mājh and māru, melodies also used in Gurbani Kirtan, thus underlining affinities between the folk tradition and the sacred music tradition of the Guru Granth. The playing of Sakar Khan in the presence of Bhai Avtar Singh, Bhai Gurcharan Singh and Ustad Fahimuddin Dagar enabled the audience to witness an extraordinary conversation between two grand traditions of India: the Deshi and the Margi. The Kamaicha is in fact the bowed Dhrupadi Rabab, as recently discovered by Bhai Baldeep Singh, and was played until the 1980s without any percussion accompaniment, as the strike of the bow provided for its rhythmical development in different variations and patterns.

Shri Rama Krishna, one of the finest exponents of nagara of the twentieth century, and his younger brother Shri Nathu Lal, gave a solo performance on the Nagara in Tintala (16 beats) and Dipchandi (14 beats). A ceremonial drum, whose playing marked different occasions, from auspicious celebrations to martial settings, the Nagara, along with the Daph and the Damaru/Dhadh, have greatly contributed to the Indian percussion traditions, as the technique and the syllables used in the compositions were later adopted and played on other instruments as Pakhawaj, Jori and Tabla.  Shri Rama Krishna’s performance evidenced the link between the technique used in the Nagara playing and the percussion tradition of the Jori, the precursor of Tabla, in the Kirtan accompaniment.

Anād Foundation then presented Bibi Nirvair Kaur accompanied on the pakhawaj by Shri Parminder Singh Bhamra, both students of Bhai Baldeep Singh, Managing Trustee of Anad Foundation and grandnephew of Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh Ragi, now depositary of this tradition of Gurbani Kirtan.  Bibi Nirvair Kaur, an American Sikh who is the Director of the Khalsa Montessori Schools in Tucson, Arizona, and a student of Kirtan, offered a short composition in raga bihag, set in teental, as an example of the traditional music training, while Shri Parminder Singh Bhamra matched her improvisations with crisply yet tenderly played rhythmical compositions.

Bhai Sikandar Singh of Bagrian introduced the award ceremony that followed, in which Bhai Swaran Singh and then Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh were conferred with the Anād Sanman on behalf of Anād Foundation by Dr. Jaswant Singh Neki, formerly Professor of Psychiatrics at the AIIMS and Director PGI, Chandigarh, a distinguished Punjabi poet and religious philosopher.

Kind words of wisdom were spent by Dr. J.S. Neki and by both the awardees, which regaled the audience with their dignified presence and the warmth of their feelings.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, Bhai Kultar Singh, Bhai Balwant Singh and Bhai Sukhdev Singh Namdhari could not participate in the programme.

“Jashan” was therefore concluded by Bhai Baldeep Singh’s moving rendition of Gurbani Kirtan, illustrating different compositions in a variety of melodies and rhythmical patterns (raga and tala) and emphasizing his gratitude for the beautiful gifts of sacred music handed over to him by his teachers and mentors, Bhai Avtar Singh and Bhai Gurcharan Singh. In his about half an hour performance he relived his twenty-six years long and intense association of learning with his granduncles. His first rendition, a reminder to his teachers of the first composition he heard as a child, “ek pita ekas ke ham barik” that remained as if engraved in his being, was heart moving. He also recounted the moments in which he was taken into the deeper realms of the sur-sadhana, santhea, through imbibing the precious shabad-reet heritage of the Gurbani Kirtan Parampara.

The metaphoric conversation that happened on this occasion between Bhai Baldeep Singh and his teachers gave the audience the rare opportunity to witness the deep meaning and value of the traditional guru-shishya-parampara in which the light of knowledge is transmitted and shared with utmost love and fulfilling gratitude, in the sacred space of selflessness.

The sincerity with which the honored ragis dedicated themselves to their family tradition and the purity of intent that characterized their attitude towards their music and their faith had a very tangible result in the amazing participation and concern shown by so many people who cooperated in many different ways, according to their capacities, to make “Jashan” a memorable event.

The Managing Trustee, on behalf of Anad Foundation, gave a vote of thanks for all the contributions received on the occasion, with the hope to have in future more occasions to bring together its many friends in creative endeavors and in sharing meaningful moments.

Maria Maurizia Costanzo, is a scholar and Kathak exponent, presently working at the Embassy of Italy, New Delhi.

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